JOHANNESBURG (AP) — South African police are patrolling the streets of Johannesburg’s Soweto township, following a spate of bar shootings that have rocked the nation.
The country’s abundance of guns held illegally is partially to blame for the shootings in which 22 people were killed at three different taverns this past weekend, community activists said.
At least 16 people were shot dead at a tavern in the township of Soweto while four others were killed in Pietermaritzburg and two were shot dead in Katlehong, east of Johannesburg. One of those wounded in the Soweto shooting died in hospital on Tuesday, raising the death toll in that incident to 16.
It’s not known if the different shootings are linked but regional and ethnic rivalries, an organized crime extortion ring, competition between bar owners and political enmities are all possible motivations for the shootings, say analysts.
In all three incidents, the suspects opened fire on patrons before speeding off in their vehicles and notably the attackers did not rob the victims.
According to police, the gunmen in the Soweto shooting used high-caliber rifles including AK-47s, leaving 137 empty cartridges found on the scene. This has raised concerns about how criminals are able to access such high-powered weapons.
The illegal guns circulating in South Africa contributes to the country’s high crime rate, according to activists. An average of 23 people are shot and killed in South Africa daily, according to the country’s annual crime statistics.
Many of the weapons used by criminals have been stolen from police and private security firms, according to Gun Free South Africa. More than 12,900 people were arrested for possession of illegal firearms and ammunition in 2020/2021, according to official statistics.
More than 3,400 police firearms had been reported stolen or unaccounted for in the last five years, according to the country’s official opposition, the Democratic Alliance. In January this year, the country’s parliamentary committee on policing heard that 158 guns went missing at the Norwood police station in Johannesburg.
“The most effective way to reduce gun deaths is to reduce gun availability. Right now we have guns flooding into the legal market, and then they move into the illegal market,” said Gun Free South Africa director Adele Kirsten.
“We know that the majority of these move from the hands of the private security industry and from fraud and corruption in the police,” said Kirsten.
Addressing the Soweto community this week South Africa Police Minister Bheki Cele said police would search houses to find the illegal guns that were used to terrorize the community.
“We have heard that illegal guns are everywhere in this community, we will be deploying the police here,” said Cele.
Soweto residents have decried the abundance of illegally held guns in the area, with some telling The Associated Press that they often hear gunshots at night.
“The reason why we don’t feel safe is because we don’t know whether the people responsible for the shooting are still in our township or not,” Anele Msompi said in the Xhosa language. “We are not safe. We can’t walk in the street, or even go to the shops without feeling nervous, anxious. We are afraid because these people could still be here with us.”
Another resident of the Nomzamo part of Soweto, Nkosimpendulo Mbhele, called on police to do more to reduce the number of guns in the area.
“I would like for our government could go door-to-door and collect all the illegal firearms, and arrest those found with illegal firearms,” said Mbhele. “They must operate during the day and at night, and go through all these shacks and houses here, because we often get mugged. You can’t even walk through this veld (field) because you may bump into thugs who will rob you at gunpoint.”
In a separate development, police arrested the owner of Enyobeni Tavern in East London where 21 teenagers were found dead last month. The owner was arrested on Saturday and two of his employees were arrested on Tuesday and will face charges for violating liquor trading laws and selling alcohol to children, according to the police.